When I was young, it didn’t take much for me to suggest a road trip. Full tank and nice weather? I’d drive just about anywhere. Now that I’m older, the time and gas it takes to fuel a road trip no longer seems reasonable. So now, when I need to travel out of state, I book a flight, but not without significant eco-guilt (all those filthy jet fuel emissions!).
Recent research shows that my decision to fly rather than drive might actually be a wise one, at least environmentally-speaking. According to scientists at the University of Michigan, light-duty vehicles (cars, SUVs, pickups and vans) are the least efficient way to travel.
“Fuel economy must improve 57 percent in order for light-duty vehicles to match the current energy efficiency of commercial airline flights,” said Michael Sivak, a research professor at the U-M Transportation Research Institute, in a recent statement.
To arrive at this conclusion, Sivak compared 40 years of fuel economy statistics of various light-duty vehicles with the per person mile energy consumption (as BTU) of other modes of transportation, like flying and taking a train. What he found was that though the efficiency of both driving and flying have steadily decreased, the improvement for flying is much greater than driving — 74 percent versus 17 percent.
Overall, Sivak’s research found that in 2010, BTU per person mile was 4,218 for driving versus 2,691 for flying. Other modes of transportation: Amtrak trains (1,668), motorcycles (2,675) and transit buses (3,347).
“The entire fleet of light-duty vehicles would have to improve from the current 21.5 mpg to at least 33.8 mpg, or vehicle load would have to increase from the current 1.38 persons to at least 2.3 persons,” reports the Michigan News. That 57 percent improvement is a tall order for an industry that took 40 years to improve vehicle fuel economy by just 65 percent. The other option, increasing passenger load, might be more feasible thanks to the recent growth in popularity of ride-sharing programs like Lyft and Sidecar.
Although it might make me feel slightly better about making long trips by plane rather than car, Sivak’s research seems to have missed one important variable: not all light-duty vehicles are powered by fossil fuels. It would be interesting to see how the results change when adding plug-in electric vehicles into the mix, especially in light of a recent survey that suggests EVs could meet the driving needs of over 40 percent of all Americans.
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